Europe: Spain: get the picture?

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The Independent Online
An Andalucian holiday with a focus sounded a perfect combination. Rupert Sagar-Musgrave set out to capture it all on camera.

The idea of a working holiday appealed. Nothing so strenuous as a kibbutz, or helping replant trees in the rainforest. That would be too much like hard work. No, why not extend my own area of work with a holiday? As a semi-professional photographer, a workshop at Los Pinos, the only English- run photography centre in Spain, seemed to combine the perfect ingredients. If you are one of those people who annoys everybody else by spending hours trying to get the perfect shot, then this is the holiday for you - and nobody will complain. I dusted off my lenses, invested in a mountain of film, and arrived in Andalucia for a holiday that I could finally justify.

By the time I surfaced on the first morning, the group was already getting acquainted over coffee in the library. This was not to be a holiday for the leisurely. Having disturbed my roommate by stumbling in at 3am, due to a "delay of inbound aircraft" at Gatwick, I now headed for the only familiar face among the group and apologised. Norman had flown in from Brussels and this was his second holiday here, which seemed to be just the sort of active recommendation that a newcomer needed.

Los Pinos, as the name suggests, is peacefully situated among pine trees on the edge of the Sierra Almijara, close to Competa. As I wandered through the garden towards the library, the view stretched away down the Torrox valley to the Mediterranean, the Costas, and beyond to the Rif Mountains of North Africa. The warm breeze was scented with pine and wild rosemary.

Each course caters for groups of up to 15 people, though ours was a very manageable seven. We spanned all ages and professions, from a therapist in her late twenties, to a middle-aged accountant, and a retired expatriate. The only common factor was a keen personal ambition to improve our photographic capabilities.

The guest host for our workshop, the landscape photographer Michael Busselle, gave an introductory talk, accompanied by his own slides to illustrate the theme for the week: "Colour landscape with a travel bias". The essence of the holiday was to spend the next six days exploring the enormous diversity of locations in the surrounding region, known enigmatically as Axarquia. Our subject matter was sometimes planned, sometimes just chanced upon. It was an experience of discovery, for nowhere looks the same twice, under changing skies and mercurial light.

Preconceptions can lead to disappointment but Andalucia matched up to the idyllic images conjured in my mind.Pueblos blancos, barren mountains, pots of geraniums, a goat herder tending his flock, a single olive tree surrounded by a carpet of purple flowers. "You want to put a warm-up filter on this one," Michael enthused, weaving through the obstacle course of tripods as the group congregated around yet another olive tree. Why is it that olive trees are so fascinating? Perhaps it is the expression of age in their trunks, or their distorted forms. Even split in two with gaping hollows, they continue to grow and bear fruit.

Each day we would clamber into a four-wheel drive and set off for a chosen spot invariably accompanied by the two dogs at Los Pinos. On arrival we would all spread out, and settle down to our own personal objectives, with Michael being on hand for practical advice on technique, equipment and film.

Sometimes we would be so immersed in obtaining that perfect shot that lunch was forgotten until about three o'clock. Then suddenly a chorizo pasta salad with juicy tomatoes, roasted peppers, fresh olives and chunks of bread, miraculously appeared spread out on a tablecloth in the shade of a ubiquitous olive tree. Although refuelling was a high priority for everyone, the sight of a shepherd bringing his flock of goats down to the stream for a drink sent everyone scrambling again for their cameras, plastic plates and cups being tossed aside, before returning for a slice of watermelon.

The days were long. Sometimes we would stop to drop off films for processing at a shopping development down by the sea on our return to Los Pinos. The heavy traffic on the coastal road made a stark contrast to the now familiar deserted mountain tracks. But with cameras stowed and bodies weary, the only thing on our minds by late evening was supper. A small decanter of the local Competa wine was always kept topped up in my log- cabin room, which served as a welcome aperitif before we reconvened for a feast of traditional dishes superbly prepared each night by Sophia. This proved quite literally to be the driving force for us all.

The centre provides a relaxed environment for a photographic holiday. When it came to an open critique of the group's work on the final day, the results were impressive to say the least. Feedback is an integral part of the learning experience and sharing ideas with the other participants was equally beneficial.

Of course the degree of attendance and thus personal progress during the week is up to you. Just don't expect to improve your shots with a siesta by the pool.

Los Pinos runs workshops from February to November, hosted by some of the best known names in British photography.

Prices start at pounds 450 for one week. The nearest airport is Malaga, transfer time approximately one hour.

For further details tel/fax 01386 841715 (UK), or tel/fax 0034 52 11 5355 (Spain).